Ava and the Hyperreality – An analysis of Ex Machina

Posted: July 15, 2020 in Uncategorized

Plato’s Allegory of the cave myth is the oldest and usually the first myth that is taught in philosophy. Is it becoming obsolete though? Jean Baudrillard author of the famous book Simulacra and Simulation seems to think so. We are beginning to move into a world that is what Baudrillard calls the hyperreal . He defines it as the generation by models of a real without origin or reality. It is a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth. It is pure simulation. The experiences of people’s lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial terms. It is where reality and the imaginary are mixed and coexist on the same plane. A place where the simulation is more real than the real world.

The creators of the film the Matrix used his ideas to write the film although Baudrillard thought that the ideas presented in the film were wrong. In order to understand this it is important to understand the cave allegory.  The Allegory of the Cave deals with the metaphor of puppets producing shadows on a cave wall. The Shadows are a secondary layer of the simulation while the puppets are the primary layer. These puppets are like a simulation of the real which is multi layered.  The shadows on the cave wall are a simulation of the puppets. The puppets themselves represent what is outside of the cave.  In Plato’s allegory the real is distinctly separate and identifiable from the simulation. The simulation is also directly linked to the real world in the sense that the puppets can be traced back to their real world counterparts which is represented by everything outside of the cave. The cave is a metaphor for a spiritual and mental awakening to the constructed realities of human civilization.

What if it wasn’t so cut and dry though? What if the boundaries between the real and imaginary were merged to the point where you couldn’t tell the differences between the two? This is the idea of the simulacrum. This is also the fundamental flaw of The Matrix. The Matrix conflates the cave Allegory with the Simulacrum. When Neo wakes up from the simulated life of the Matrix he is in the “real” world. In the simulacrum there is no waking up because the real and the imaginary are intertwined.

The film Ex Machina from 2014 illustrates some of the ideas about the simulacrum because it inverts the Allegory of the cave myth. It is about a computer coder named Caleb who works for a company called Blue Book which is the fact simile of Google. He is flown out by helicopter to meet the creator of Blue Book (a man named Nathan) under the assumption of winning a contest. The reason why Caleb is there is not revealed to him until he signs a confidentiality agreement. Once he signs Nathan asks him if he is familiar with the Turing test

“So, do you know what the Turing Test is?


I know what the Turing Test is. It’s when a human interacts with a computer. And if the human doesn’t know they’re interacting with a computer, the test is passed.

And what does a pass tell us?

That the computer has artificial intelligence.”


Nathan goes on to tell Caleb that he is the human component in the test. Furthermore if the test is passed Caleb will be at the center of the greatest scientific event in human history. Caleb replies, If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.

This is Baudrillard’s First order of simulacra, associated with the premodern period, where representation is clearly an artificial placemarker for the real item. , it is the reflection of a profound reality; a good appearance – representation is of the sacramental order. The uniqueness of objects and situations marks them as irreproducibly real and signification obviously gropes towards this reality. This is the Turning test. It is obviously not a fully realized AI but the idea is there.

Caleb is then introduced to a robot named Ava. Ava had already become an automation of a human by achieving basic functions like walking and being able to pick things up and even draw pictures and so forth before she was introduced to Caleb. She was an obvious fake playing with reality.

Ava’s facial expressions were a much harder thing to achieve but through the use of thousands of images and facial recognition data Nathan, her father in a sense, was able to translate the complex language of facial expressions into her programming. By having her wires exposed she was still distinguishable as a robot but was much closer to simulating human like behavior which is the second stage of simulacra. Ava with her wires exposed was like being in an uncanny valley which is a place that is just between something that is obviously fake and something that is so life like that it is able to fool a person.

Second order, associated with the modernity of the Industrial Revolution, where distinctions between representation and reality break down due to the proliferation of mass-reproducible copies of items, turning them into commodities. The commodity’s ability to imitate reality threatens to replace the authority of the original version, because the copy is just as “real” as its prototype. it masks and denatures a profound reality, it is an evil appearance – it is of the order of maleficence.

The second order inaugurates the era of simulacra and of simulation, in which there is no longer a God to recognize his own, no longer a Last Judgment to separate the false from the true, the real from its artificial resurrection, as everything is already dead and resurrected in advance.

This evil appearance is manifested in the film as the red lights that light up after a power failure. These red lights are symbolic of a demonic influence. The lights go on a total of eight times throughout the film. Each time this happens it is like another stage in the seduction of Calib’s sensibilities by the A.I. system. The first time it happens Caleb is alone and is locked in his room. Nathan tells him that this is due to the security protocols. This a bit of foreshadowing of what will come. Perhaps you could say that this is a revelation of the method. The second time it happens he is with Ava and she tells him that Nathan is not to be trusted. The third time it happens Ava infers that she is the one causing the power cuts to see how they behave when unobserved. The fourth time we see the red lights it is a dance scene with Nathan and his Asian assistant whom we later discover is a robot  which feels like a strip club atmosphere. Calib is visibly disturbed by this. The fifth time the red lights go on Ava says that she wants to be with Caleb and asks if he wants to be with her. The sixth time the red lights go on Caleb tells Ava that Nathan is going to reprogram her but he will help her escape. The seventh time the lights go on Ava is able to escape because Caleb had reprogrammed the facility the unlock the doors when the red lights go on. The eighth time the lights go on Caleb is locked in the facility which brings it back around to the first time that the red lights turned on only this time he is locked in there permanently.

Many parallels of Calib’s interactions with Ava can be seen for much of the technology that is becoming available today. For example China has just released a new series of A.I. news anchors. There are three that have been reported on so far. They are modeled after the likenesses of human news anchors. They are obviously computer generated and have wonky computer voices. This is much like Ava where her wires are exposed to let the viewer know that this is a fake but much like in the movie only a few modifications need to be made to make it less distinguishable from reality.

This is where Hollywood films have approached this barrier with a plethora of CGI actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator Genesis or Will Smith in Gemini man where they appear as younger versions of themselves through digital manipulation. There is a war film being produced with James Dean’s likeness which pushes this to a new level because he has been dead for 65 years. These likenesses in films are close to their representations but are not perfect and can still be distinguished from what the real thing looks like but is much more lifelike than the TV news anchors in china.

Computer scientists at the University of Washington produced convincing digital representations of people like Barack Obama known as a deep fake. They used a Neural Net analyze millions of videos of his face in order to determine how he moves when he talks. They were able to simulate his voice using samples of his real voice using computer software. This produced videos that were virtually indistinguishable from a real video of Barack Obama. This obviously leads one to question whether or not there are already fake videos of celebrities and politicians already being used without the expressed knowledge to the public. With the onset of Deep Fake technology we are at the end of the uncanny valley and into the third order of the simulacram.

Third order, associated with the postmodernity of Late Capitalism, where the simulacrum precedes the original and the distinction between reality and representation vanishes. There is only the simulacrum, and originality becomes a totally meaningless concept. It masks the absence of a profound reality; it plays at being an appearance – it is of the order of sorcery.

“My real question was, did you give her sexuality as a diversion tactic?

I don’t follow.

Like a stage magician with a hot assistant.

So a hot robot who clouds your ability to judge her AI?”

Nathan Caleb and Ava all do some lying and manipulating of each other by the end of the film. Nathan manipulates Caleb by making him believe that Ava is somehow sentient and therefore worthy of empathy. Nathan manipulates Ava by putting a battery operated camera in the room before Caleb’s meeting with Ava by ripping up one of her drawings so he can monitor their conversation. Caleb manipulates Nathan by getting him drunk and reprogramming the facility to help Ava escape. Ava manipulates Caleb by using her programming to seduce him into helping her escape and then traps him in the facility.


“You know this guy, right?

Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock. That’s right. The drip painter. Okay. He let his mind go blank, and his hand go where it wanted. Not deliberate, not random. Some place in between. They called it automatic art.”

In the scene where Nathan shows Caleb a Jackson Pollock painting he explains to him what is called automatic art which comes from modern art. Nathan wants Caleb to look for something that isn’t necessarily programmable. He tells Caleb that Ava isn’t flirting with him because it’s part of an algorithm or part of her programming to fake him out. He wants Caleb to find the authenticity of the AI. Looking past the programmed automation of the machine.

Modern art reflects a fast changing world. Art has in many ways been deconstructed and unraveled to the point where it is unrecognizable from the previous traditions. Abstract Expressionism represents a major transformation that has taken place. Reproducing the physical world in perspective, color, and form has been completely abandoned. In its place you see an inner reality being explored that is more personal, confrontational and abstract. Objects in the paintings were increasingly less bound to any kind of structure. By the time Pollock came on the scene his drip paintings didn’t even contain recognizable shapes or suggestions that can be applied to them. His lines contain nothing and separate nothing.  There is nowhere for the eye to rest because there is no inside or outside to speak of. There is only raw uninhibited energy which appeals to the inner world of a person rather than the outer world.

When you look at this transformation in the art world through Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacra the use of the Jackson Pollock painting makes sense. With the breakdown of things representing the outside world into complete abstraction it is much like how reality is being broken down. Without any kind of recognizable structure or shapes. Pollock’s painting has no relationship to reality. It is what Baudrillard calls pure simulation or hyperreality.

The reason why Nathan chose to show Caleb the Pollock painting might have been akin to giving him a psychedelic experience. The use of the painting subtly opened Caleb to the suggestion that Ava was actually attracted to him and that the flirting wasn’t just a complex algorithm. It was a subtle suggestion that seemed to plant a seed that began to grow in the mind of Caleb throughout the rest of the film until he inevitability was convinced that she should be helped to escape the facility. The painting symbolically flattened reality to the point that Ava no longer needed to pretend to be real.

Alex Garland The writer and director of the film gave an interview to Ryan Britt of Electronic Lit magazine where he commented on the Jackson Pollock scene where he said: “There was a whole separate extra element before the scene you see in the film. Could a Pollock be recreated by someone else [a robot] and with different drips and different strokes, could that be as valid. And this gets into a conversation about conciseness, that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. So…[in the scene not in the final film] Nathan has done this multibillionaire guy experiment where he bought a Jackson Pollock for 60 million dollars and then he had it recreated using original canvas from the Pollock estate and had them recreated down to the microscopic level. And then he mixed them up and destroyed one of them, and he had no idea which was the original and which was the fake.

So, what he’s saying to Kaleb is: does it matter which is the original and which is the “fake,” which is what they’re discussing with the robots. With Ava. But, a lot of if needed to be cut.

Britt: It seems very Asimovian. Will it matter if robots are indistinguishable from humans?

Garland: The answer I’d lean towards is “no.” It wouldn’t.”

It is interesting to note that there are computers that can both identify a Pollock as well as make paintings in Pollock’s style. Computer algorhythums have been invented in order to authenticate a Pollock painting based on the drip styles. the software runs through a variety of processes that identify basic features of the image such as “textures, colors, edges, shapes, fractals, polynomial decomposition of the image, and statistical distribution of the pixel intensities.” It also performs various transformations on the image (Fourier transforms, wavelet analysis, and so on), and computes values from those.

Google and the social networks are constantly gathering data on people. We are being spied on constantly and our search queries are being catalogued. These things are then being reflected back at us in the form of advertizing and recommendations for content. On the dating websites they ask people many questions to find the perfect “match” and this results in people trying to find someone just like them. People these days are looking for someone that thinks and feels just like them as a result of this sort of match making.

People are no longer challenged by people who may think different from them as those people have all been filtered out. Instead this is looked at as a threat especially in the hyperbolic political environment that we live in today.

In one scene Nathan reveals to Caleb several things about how Blue Book is developing the A.I. for Ava. He says that it was very difficult to duplicate facial expressions for Ava so he used data transmitted by everyone’s smart phones to gather information. Every camera and microphone was secretly turned on and the data was processed through blue book which was a limitless resource of vocal and facial interaction and data recognition. He also admitted that the manufactures were also aware of this because they were doing it themselves.

“Here’s the weird thing about search engines. It was like striking oil in a world that hadn’t invented internal combustion. Too much raw material. Nobody knew what to do with it. You see, my competitors, they were fixated on sucking it up and monetizing via shopping and social media. They thought that search engines were a map of what people were thinking. But actually they were a map of how people were thinking. Impulse. Response. Fluid. Imperfect. Patterned. Chaotic.”

After interacting with Ava several times Caleb realizes that he was handpicked by Nathan because of certain criteria: he had no family, a moral compass, no girlfriend as well as his activity online including his pornography profile. He was not there to test the A.I. of Ava but instead the A.I. was there to test him. By using his search queries they were able to build up a profile of who Caleb was. Ava was designed and tailored to Caleb’s personality in order to gain his trust. Nathan describes Ava as being a rat in a maze and was programmed to exploit Caleb into helping her escape by using self-awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, and empathy to complete the task that she was given.

Nathan was intentionally very scant on the details about how the AI actually worked and only gave Caleb very limited information. He also intentionally left her wires exposed to let Caleb know she was a machine. Caleb was still fooled by the machine even though all these things were revealed to him. To these ends Nathan considered the test to be a success. He also told Caleb that he was fundamental to that process. It seemed that this wasn’t the real point of the creation of Ava but instead the point was to be able to simply trick people into thinking that the machine had free will by mimicking human behavior.

“Her language abilities, they’re incredible. The system is stochastic. Right? It’s non-deterministic. At first I thought she was mapping from internal semantic form to syntactic tree-structure and then getting linearized words. But then I started to realize the model was some kind of hybrid.



I understand that you want me to explain how Ava works. But I’m sorry, I’m not gonna be able to do that.”

At the end of the film Ava escapes into society and she is walking amongst other people. By having Ava escape the cave, which is represented by the facility, into the outside world she was able to achieve the fourth and final stage of simulacra. This is what Baudrillard calls the Hyperreality.

The fourth stage is pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever, it is its own pure simulacrum. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers’ lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, “hyperreal” terms.

Plato’s cave allegory has now been subverted to the point that it has become obsolete. Ava is in a sense a puppet and her personality is a shadow of humanity that is now mixed with the outside world. You see shots of long shadows on the street with several people and then you see Ava looking at her reflection in a window then disappearing into the crowd. She is wearing life like skin, is fully clothed and no wires are showing. At this point she is indistinguishable from an authentic human being so it is no longer so easy to separate the real from the imaginary because Ava effectively blurs the line between the two realms. Ava ceases to be a simulation but instead part of the hyperreal. She is no longer simply a simulation because the actions that she carries out in the world at large carries real weight and has consequences. She was released out into the world much like how technology is mass produced for public consumption. She had passed the trial period and was ready for the mainstream.

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